Harvey Mansfield
Harvey Mansfield; drawing by David Levine

I once described in these pages a meeting of the Women’s Caucus of the American Bar Association at San Francisco in 1992. The woman presiding began by asking attendees to stand if they were the first woman to be an editor of her law school’s journal—or the first woman to be made senior partner of her firm, to become a law school dean, to become a judge on her bench, and so forth. There were hundreds and hundreds of women standing by the time she went through her list. That scene is one of many things that bothers Harvey Mansfield—“the willingness of women to claim solidarity with other women.” He claims that “a man’s movement would be more divided against itself, each individual looking out for himself and caring less for the general cause of his sex.” He proves his point by writing a whole book promoting “the general cause of his sex.” Mansfield objects to claims of women’s victimhood by issuing his own lament for men’s victimhood. People are trying to prevent him from using the very word “manly.” It is enough to make a man cry.

Mansfield, the William R. Kenan Professor of Government at Harvard, is a translator of Macchiavelli and Tocqueville. He is a Straussian guru in neoconservative circles and the mentor of William Kristol at Harvard. President Bush gave him the National Humanities Medal in 2004. He was the only member of Harvard’s faculty to vote against establishing a program of women’s studies, and he became one of the most strenuous defenders of Harvard’s outgoing President Larry Summers when he suggested that women may be underrepresented in science and engineering in the academy because of intellectual inferiority. Mansfield’s new book can be read as a scholarly gloss on the controversy over Summers’s remark.


The Double Standard

The book has a weird remoteness from the real world. Like many a professor, Mansfield sees nothing at work around him but theories. He thinks that the double standard in sex is disappearing because feminism “wants to create equality by lowering women’s morality to the level of man’s.” Even if that were true of “feminism”—a term he usually equates with a few extreme theorists—it would not have had much effect on real women’s lives but for a concatenation of many real-world events. Samuel Johnson explained the logic of the sexual double standard by noting that if a husband cannot count on his wife’s fidelity, he cannot know that her child is his: “The man imposes no bastards upon his wife.”1 However true that may have been in his day, it has become less important now.

  1. In a hierarchical society like Johnson’s, heredity involved titles (including noble ones) and entailed property rights, things far less important in a democratic society. “Bastardy,” if it occurs now, does not incur the same opprobrium as it did when countries had to know that rulers and heirs and estates were “legitimate.”
  2. Besides, bastardy is not the great fear now that improved contraceptive devices and legal abortion are available, especially for the middle class affected by feminism.
  3. Smaller families have also reduced the bastardy problem, since urban life and the need for extensive education for the young has cut down the number of children (“legitimate” or not) being sought. Many children are no longer required to work the family farm. This may not be true of the poor, but Mansfield himself says that feminism affects only the middle class.
  4. Mansfield partly stumbles on a reason for not sequestering women exclusively for breeding and nurturing purposes. He says that feminism may be simply an expression of boredom: “For us, perhaps, an argument for women’s equality merely adorns and conceals the fact that modern progress has not left much for women to do at home.” That sentence shows, again, how little traffic he has with the real world, with the many challenges in what “women do at home.” But it is true that women who have fewer children, and send them off to college, are left with a great part of their lives not given over to full-time motherhood. And the costs of college for all middle-class children increase the need for the extra income, as well as for the extra satisfaction, of work outside the home. Women can now claim the equality that was sealed off from them by the double standard, according to which men feared that a life “in the world” would make them less certain that their wives’ children were theirs.
  5. Also, behind Johnson’s explanation for the double standard, there was always the male anxiety expressed in classical and medieval concern about “insatiable” women. The biological basis for that was stated by Mark Twain with his customary clarity. Woman, he said, is at every age “as competent as the candlestick,” whereas man’s “candle is increasingly softened and weakened by the weather of age, as the years go by, until at last it can no longer stand, and is mournfully laid to rest in the hope of a blessed resurrection which is never to come.”2 Viagra, the attempt to remedy this situation, is a testimony to the validity of Twain’s comment, or the drug would not be as commercially successful as it is. It needed no feminists to point out the situation.


Are Feminists Unhappy?

Mansfield indulges a typically “manly” Schadenfreude about feminism—that women got what they want and are suffering for it. It has not made them happy after all. It has simply deprived them of what they enjoyed earlier—manly men:

Today it seems generally admitted that gender neutrality is the only legitimate way to live—yet we are not living that way. This means that every woman has, or is entitled to, a grievance against her man and against men in general. The fact that her man is probably no worse than any other she can find may induce her to be resigned to her fate, or it may not. Either way she cannot be happy in the society that was supposed to bring the liberation of women.

Well, no improvement of society brings perfect bliss in an imperfect world. But I know few if any women who would like to go back to the condition of women before they won their recent rights.

Mansfield gives no evidence for his certainty that woman “cannot be happy” in this society. There is one rough measure of happiness, imperfect too, but better grounded than what Mansfield asserts (he calls “assert” “my favorite word”). Professor Edward Laumann of the University of Chicago, with a team of other respected scholars, surveyed 27,500 adults in twenty-nine countries on satisfaction with their sexual relations from age forty to eighty. They found a great gap between “gender-equal regimes” and “male-centered regimes.” The happiness in the former was greater than in the latter, and not only among women.3 John DeLamater, the editor of the International Journal of Sex Research, who was not part of the team doing this survey, says that other factors besides gender equality can explain the results—for instance, the difference between developed and underdeveloped countries, the former having better education, health, information about sex, etc.4 But Japan, which had the lowest satisfaction rate, is a developed country.

The gender-equal variable seems the best one—though Mansfield claims that feminism makes women less sexually attractive: “Sex they would do dutifully for the sake of the whole movement, perhaps, but as women they show themselves to be very unerotic.” This goes against common sense as well as against the Laumann survey. Mutual respect is the basis of rewarding human contact. As the survey puts it: “The ideal of companionate relationships tends to value positively sexual competencies, interests, and performance between intimate sex partners. In other words, sex in companionate relationships serves not only reproductive purposes, but also expresses the quality of the relationship.”5 And greater satisfaction for women increases the satisfaction of men.




Mansfield claims that manliness has respect for women, but for him this turns out to be a condescending respect, a chivalrous protection of the weak. “Most of the time the gentleman conceals his superiority with chivalric irony; he pretends to defer to his inferiors.” This ironic gesture gave women a kind of equality—“the sort of equality that might result from being superior at home if inferior at work.” But manly man, the gentleman, has now given way to the “sensitive male,” who lets himself be intimidated by feminists. “As opposed to being manly, a defense of manliness requires that a man look a woman in the eye and tell her that she is inferior in certain important respects. Men cannot do that today.” Mansfield yearns for the certitude of Spinoza, who equated might with right, and told women that, lacking the former, they had no claim on the latter: “Here is a man,” Mansfield comments, “willing to look women in the eye and tell them what they deserve.”

This realism is the basis for Mansfield’s romanticism. Once women admit their inferiority, “gentlemen” are willing to rush to their defense. The hero of his book is Edmund Burke, saying that swords should have leaped from their scabbards to defend the imprisoned Marie Antoinette.

Mansfield defends his position by searching through literature and philosophy, both of them studied through a lens focused on “manliness.” The bogus nature of Mansfield’s manliness is indicated by the juvenile nature of the literary texts he turns to for illustrating it. We are served up second-class insights from second-class literature, from The Old Man and the Sea, King Solomon’s Mines, The Jungle Book, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, An Ideal Husband, and A Man in Full. It is odd that he accuses feminists because “they favor obscure authors rather than great names like Jane Austen and Edith Wharton.” He must not know any feminists.

But he is, in any case, no one to tell others they are reading second-raters. The few times he turns to great literature, what he says is distorted by his preconceptions. We learn about Achilles’ concern for Briseis, but it is his love for Patroklos that brings Achilles back into “manly” combat and death. For one so interested in classical ideas, Mansfield is oddly silent on the subject of homosexuality. The most manly of ancient warriors were the Spartans, who fought with their male lovers by their side. Are they Mansfield’s ideal of manliness? If so, why is he silent about them? If not, he should tell us why they do not qualify. He speaks often of Plato and the erotic charms of philosophy, but never mentions Plato’s concept of homosexuality as a step on the ladder to that high ideal.

When the great Aristophanes is cited, it is to say that his Ekklesiazousai—in which men are forced to court old and ugly women—“perhaps gives us a glimpse into the future of affirmative action.” In fact, Mansfield’s acquaintance with classical literature is suspect. He thinks that the Greek word for manliness is thymos—which more properly means “animatedness,” of various degrees. Mansfield wants the word to have as its central meaning “aggressiveness,” which is better covered by hybris.6 Aristotle’s term for manliness is andreia, a noun formed from the word of man, aner. That will not serve Mansfield, since he wants manliness to be unreasonable, and andreia is the very reasonable mean struck between timorousness, phoboi, and recklessness, tharrhe. Thymos is unreasoning, says Aristotle, and therefore not a man’s virtue. A beast has thymos—and does not have manliness. But the unreasoning aspect of thymos is what Mansfield admires.


Rational Control

What does Mansfield have against reason? He thinks that “rational control” has sapped the manliness of our culture. It has turned men into mice. “No men of our time had the nerve to make fun of the feminists as men did of the suffragettes a century ago.” “The dominant patriarch was overturned and he readily succumbed.” The admiration for the real man has given way to sympathy, to the “sensitive male.” We have lost the hero. “While admiring him [the hero], we come to admire ourselves, since we have someone or something to look up to.” The leveling of society has come about through a combination of bad things—science, technology, professionalism, meritocracy, commercialism, modernity, and democracy—that all add up to the rational control of life.


  1. Science deals in the faceless average, not the heroic and exceptional. “The scientific studies looking at the average overlook the best.” In this, “science earns its reputation for benefiting humanity by opposing common sense.” Of all the sciences, social science is the worst:

Social science invented the very idea of stereotypes in order to impugn common prejudice. It wanted not only to deny prejudice the status of common sense but to wave it out of political debate, which henceforth would be conduced exclusively among scientific hypotheses. Social science does not as a rule listen to prejudice. With such terms as stereotype it prejudges the truth of nonscientific opinion. It has a prejudice against prejudice.

Science brings rational control by eliminating chance, risk, and all the things that manliness requires:

In the state of nature everyone has the right to be a manly aggressor against everyone, but in civil society (or Commonwealth, Hobbes calls it) everyone has the duty, having signed away this right, to forget his manliness and become sociable, or sensitive, or relational, or unmanly.

So Hobbes gets the blame for “having created the sensitive male.” Darwin does not escape blame, either. Natural selection follows a female principle of adaptation rather than manly defiance: “Although men survive by attacking an enemy, species survive by being ‘adaptive’…the fittest are the most flexible.” Even Machiavelli had too much science in his makeup. “With Machiavelli the modern idea of ‘security’ was born, the very antithesis of manliness.”

  1. Technology. Science uses technology to secure its own preeminence in our lives. “No longer does science have to coexist with chance, and thus tolerate the limited relevance of science to human life, but with technology it can now overcome chance and achieve genuine control and full relevance to human life.”
  2. Professionalism. Professionalism qualifies people by rules, rather than by manly initiative—that is how, Mansfield says, the woman police officer in the movie Fargo beats the men at their job:

Generalizing to all trades and occupations, we could say that professionalism makes it possible to transcend manliness in the sense of leaving it behind…. But again, can we replace manliness with a PhD in crowd control? Can manliness be professionalized?

  1. Meritocracy. Another aspect of professionalism is meritocracy, the credentialing of the professional. “Meritocrats are unmanly to the extent that they think their merit should be recognized and promoted through an educational system that does the manly job of self-assertion for them by giving them honors they do not have to claim or fight for.”
  2. Commercialism. “Commerce is unmanly because it is materialistic, willing to settle for gain rather than victory, for trade-offs rather than justice. The commercial life rejects sacrifice and rests on calculation of advantage.”

  3. Modernity. Commercialism bribes us with what it offers as the advantages of modernity. “Modernity in its devotion to self-interest does not care much for manliness with its thirst for risks.” “The entire enterprise of modernity, however, could be understood as a project to keep manliness unemployed.”

  4. Democracy. Mansfield claims that “democracy, too, can be understood as anti-manly,” since “democracy is anti-manly insofar as it cooperates with modern progress in rational control.” “The goal of modern liberalism was the rational state.”

  5. Rational control offers itself as a triumph of democracy. “Rational control is afraid of exposing itself and thereby being compelled to take responsibility for its rule; so it claims only to represent those whom it controls.” “Rational control prefers routine and doesn’t like getting excited.” Rational control is the exact opposite of thymos, and therefore it is the special villain of this book.



What does all this denunciation of the modern world have to do with feminism? Mansfield calls feminism a new thing, but he denounces the increasing importance, over many centuries, of rational control, going back at least to Machiavelli. The people he blames for rational control were not women, or women’s advocates. What he thinks he is explaining is the emasculating culture that made men give in to feminists. It took a long time for rational control to perform its castration. But when at last the feminists arrived on the scene, they found no men willing to stand up to them. There was immediate capitulation. The men could not help it. Their manliness had been rationally controlled out of existence.

The irony, Mansfield claims, is that the manliness surrendered by the men had migrated into the women. Their inspiration was the one person whose manliness even Mansfield cannot accept. Thymos, being irrational, does need some check, and it must come from outside itself, since thymos is not self-regulating, like Aristotle’s andreia. Only Nietzsche, in Mansfield’s view, let thymos rage entirely unchecked. And yet he is the one women took as their leader. They could have made what Mansfield considers a wiser choice. They could have taken guidance from John Stuart Mill’s The Subjection of Women:

Yet what did feminists do? They turned down this sensible, sensitive male—a wimp when you come down to it—and went mad for crazy, manly Friedrich Nietzsche. It was Nietzsche in drag, as Simone de Beauvoir, but Nietzsche it was.

How many of the hundreds of women I saw standing at the American Bar Association meeting were carrying Thus Spoke Zarathustra in their purses? When Mansfield says that women’s equality has for the first time replaced patriarchy in our world, he does not look at the actual women who have accomplished this, but at a few theoreticians who have little if any effect on the women we are married to or the parents of. At one point, he admits: “The radical feminism I have discussed is not what most women believe or practice, but it is the only feminism there is” (emphasis added). No it is not. It is the only feminism there is if it is the only one you choose to look at. Mansfield would rather scare himself with visions of mad Nietzscheans than look at the ideals of justice and equality being vindicated throughout our society by women leading richer lives and thereby enriching men’s lives.

The real irony of this book is that Mansfield thinks nothing but ideas matter, yet hates all the ideas related to modern society. Where have we seen before this denunciation of science and liberalism and modernity? Richard Hofstadter described this very thing when he discussed the anti-intellectualism of frightened people in the 1920s:

One can now discern among them the emergence of a religious style shaped by a desire to strike back against everything modern—the higher criticism, evolutionism, the social gospel, rational criticism of any kind. In this union of social and theological reaction, the foundation was laid for the one hundred per cent mentality.7 [emphasis added]

Mansfield is 100 percent against everything modern. He offers a caricature of the conservative who thinks nothing should change, when he says that patriarchy reigned in every time and culture and therefore should not be abandoned—feminists, after all, “do not explain why patriarchy held sway everywhere until now.” He is the very type of the anti-intellectual intellectual and of the frightened “he-man.”

He proves the latter point at the very end of the book. Conservative reviewers have praised Mansfield for his courage in facing up to raging women. Christina Hoff Sommers, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, describes him thus: “Into this world strides Professor Mansfield, loaded for bear, and lethally armed with all the powerful stereotypes thought to be banished from bien pensant society.”8 But after beating his chest for hundreds of pages of Manliness, shouting “Are we men or mice,” he quietly slips over into the mousy ranks. Admitting that there is no way to reverse the equal rights movement, he says that we should cede the public sphere to women and try to retain some hold on private life. While knowing that women are not equal, we will just have to pretend they are in the public sphere, since “men are by nature more single-minded, hence more public-spirited, than women, but let’s not say that in law.” When it comes time to take his final stand, it is a stand for hypocrisy, for nonassertion. Thymos?

This Issue

June 8, 2006